In my previous post, Defining ‘racism’, I talked about the difference between individual racism and institutional/systemic racism. Most discussions around race and racism rely heavily on critical race theory to examine “the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression.”
Michel Foucault’s concept of bio-power has received very little focus within the race literature, specifically as it relates to the issue of blackness and racism in America. During my graduate studies, I found Foucault’s idea of bio-power and bio-politics increasingly intriguing. I felt that it was time for a much-needed departure from the ‘business as usual’ theoretical model of critical race theory to a Foucauldian analysis when discussing racism. As such, I situate racism within Foucault’s concept of bio-power to offer alternative ways of looking at racism, as well as its causes and consequences.
What is biopower?
Around the 19th century, there began a shift in the form of governance from sovereign power, based on punishment and death to control and discipline its population, to a new form of power. Foucault identified this new form of power as bio-power, a governance technique focused on various mechanisms that subjugated individual bodies for population control.1
According to Foucault, biopower is a form of power that was concerned with the administration, optimization, and fostering of life by promoting the care for and well-being of its population under the state’s control.2 From biopower emerged biopolitics, “a second form of bio-power ‘focused on the species body’… of reproduction, mortality, health, life expectancy, and so on.” 3 In this sense, biopower moved from a sovereign power with the right to take life or let live, to ‘kill and let live’, to a biopolitical governance concerned with to ‘make live and let die.’2 3 In other words, the state no longer had to control its population through punishment, i.e. physical death. Under biopower, the population was managed through knowledge. The emergence of demography via the evaluation of the relationship between resources and inhabitants was one way this modern power was able to achieve population control.1
Biopower and racism
Within this modern power’s desire to administrate, optimize, and foster the biological makeup of its population was “the latent potential to eliminate that which is perceived to threaten the vital health of the population.” 4 Biopower’s ability to be preoccupied with the care of its population, to ‘make live,’ while at the same time exercising the elimination of certain sectors of the population, to ‘let die,’ is what Foucault regarded as the paradoxes of biopower. Foucault ponders how biopower can justify its killing “if it is true that its basic function is to improve life, to prolong its duration, to improve its chance, to avoid accidents, and to compensate for failings.”2 Killing here is metaphorical.
In other words, if biopower’s function is to maximize the well-being of its population, how do we account for the part of the population that slip from the care of the State?What are the mechanisms by which, if any, biopower can justify its power to make some live, while it let(s) others die?
For Foucault, the answer was racism, which he regarded as the mechanism by which biopower exercises the right to ‘make live and let die.’ Foucault contends that “racism is inscribed at the basic mechanism of power, as it is exercised in modern States.” 2 Foucault views “racism as a governing apparatus” that constitutes the racial subject as a threat to the social body, and as such should be removed from society via means of institutions, such as prisons, residential segregation, and so forth. 2 In fact, Foucault goes as far as to assert that this kind of racism is not “a truly ethnic racism, but racism of the evolutionist kind, biological racism” (261) that “justify the exercise of the sovereign right to kill in an economy of power concerned with the life and well-being of the population.” 2
The historical construction of the black body, which I will discuss in detail below, greatly illustrates this argument.
The racial subject: A genealogy of racism and the black body
The historical construction of the black body can be traced back to the 17th century when the development of the global market and trade between continents laid the foundation for racial classifications to emerge. Population groups from different continents came into contact with one another through the global trade expansion.5 The growing industrialization of America’s economy in the 17th century called for a large labor force to produce goods to meet the market demand. The colonies at the turn of the 18th century deliberately selected Africans as permanent slaves to supply the labor force.5 This, in turn, required the fabrication of a new type of categorization for humanity, i.e. racial categories, to supply the labor demand cheaply. The concept of race emerged to supply the growing demands of America’s labor market with slave power. During that time, highly civilized West African societies were engaged in trade relations with Europeans, and these West African nations had a ready supply of slaves to trade with Europeans in exchange for weapons and other resources.
Biopower, a power concerned with the protection of its population, emerged around the same time, thus the enslavement of black bodies needed justification. The justification came from “biopower’s willingness to seek biological explanations for a host of social problems” which gave authority to medical discourse to identify irregularities, anomaly, and deviation within the population.4 The medical discourse constructed race as a biological phenomenon, classifying individuals based on skin color, body shape, and hair type, effectively creating the racial subject. In doing so, the black body became biologized and situated in a discourse of medical concern.
Thomas Jefferson was the first to suggest the natural inferiority of black people, bringing science to the support his race ideology, as a rationale for the enslavement of blacks.5 A scientific explanation of race fought to assert the natural superiority of whites and the inherent inferiority of blacks. In the early 20th century, intelligence tests became the dominant way in which scientists tried to document significant differences between Blacks and Whites.5 As Enoch4 eloquently put it,
“medical discourse served to create biologized subjects through the establishment of racial norms and their application as part of a statewide regulatory apparatus.” (70)
Around the turn of the 20th century, biological explanations for racial difference were deemed inadequate and unscientific. Various medical experts denounced racial differences as biological, which changed the social discourse on race and racism. Nonetheless, despite the lack of any scientific evidence to prove its validity, the 18th-century ideology of race as something that is natural and biological continues to have a lingering influence on the contemporary social reality of different racial groups.
Biopolitics ability to construct biological explanations, i.e. racial differences, for a host of social problems has greatly increased the potential for biopower to divide human beings into competing races, normalizing the view that the ‘death’ of the inferior race will make life in general healthier.4 Death in this sense is symbolical— the inferior “Other” is left to ‘die’ through segregation, isolation, and eventually eradication from the broader society. The killing of the inferior subject is exercised and then justified, through the discourse on the biologized black subject that is continuously conflated with the discourses of inferiority and criminality implicated in a host of social ills. Simply put, the construction of blacks as a threat to society justifies their punishment, whether it is through segregated neighborhoods or the prison–industrial complex. As blacks continue to be represented as a threat to the social body, their elimination from the broader society through segregation, isolation, and eventually eradication becomes to be rationalized and justified under the protection of the social body deemed worthy of protection by biopower governance.3 4 In short, “Foucault’s genealogy of racism shows us the constructedness of our racialized world” (34) that nonetheless have real consequences for racial minorities.6
As such, Foucault’s assessment of biopower as a contradictory governance apparatus is evident; it is this paradoxical role of caring for the life of the nation through the eradication of the ‘Other’ that justifies the ‘killing’ of blacks through social isolation, segregation, and eradication from society. Foucault’s idea of racism, thus, breaks away from the common understanding of racism as a form of irrational prejudice, social discrimination, or political ideology, to rethink racism as a form of biopolitical government that impinges on individuals in their most basic relationship to themselves and others.6 Foucault makes this clear when he contends that biopower’s racism is “far removed from the ordinary racism that takes the traditional form of mutual contempt or hatred between races” (258).2 As such, racism should be reconceptualized as a governmental rationality that is central to the apparatus of biopower in the 21st century.
- Foucault, Michel. 1984. “The Foucault reader.” Pantheon, 257-273.
Foucault, Michel. 1975. “Lecture: 17 March 1976.” in Society Must be Defended: Lectures at Collège de France, 1976.
Erlenbusch, Verena. 2017.“From Race War to Socialist Racism: Foucault’s Second Transcription.” Foucault Studies, 134-152.
- Enoch, Simon. 2006. “The contagion of difference: Identity, bio-politics and National Socialism.” Foucault studies, 1: 53-70.
Smedley, A. & Smedley B. D. 2005. “Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real.” American Psychologist 60 (1), 16-26.
Su Rasmussen, Kim. 2011. “Foucault’s genealogy of racism.” Theory, Culture & Society 28(5): 34-51.